The first transgender woman I knew personally worked with me in 1994. I was fresh out of college, writing copy for a student loan guarantor, excited to finally be out and employed in the real world. I was young. I was green. I was untraveled. I was unworldly. I first met this woman when she was hired into our small, tight-knit team. She presented as a man when she first joined us.
When she began her transition, she took small, subtle steps. First some makeup. Then a skirt. Then a pair of heels. We whispered about her behind her back; tossed around rumors that she’d asked our manager for a gender-neutral bathroom.
I’m not proud of how I acted then. I definitely wasn’t kind, encouraging, or inclusive. I was a little bit afraid of her—most likely a response to my own internalized homophobia—and also fascinated by her. I watched from afar, speculating in my own heteronormative safety about how and why a man would want to become a woman. I did not understand. And when you don’t understand something, it’s easy to be fearful. And cruel.
I wish I could go back and make those days different for her. I wish I would have led with my heart instead of my suspicious mind. I wish I would have supported and encouraged her. Because living that life in 1994 in central Indiana could not have been easy. And I am ashamed to admit that I count myself among all the things that made her life harder. I didn’t act horribly to her—no screaming transphobic slurs, no outward hostility—but I didn’t reach out with kindness, either. And really, that’s just as bad. I coexisted beside her instead of walking with her.
What a difference I might have made if I’d been braver.
But in those days, I was safe in my heteronormative cocoon. I was a college graduate with a good job, a dog owner, engaged to be married to my high school sweetheart, standing on the precipice of the white-picket-fence life I thought I wanted so badly. I was unwilling to rock the boat I had so painstakingly balanced.
I saw the same thing happen with friends and neighbors when I came out of the closet decades later. When someone you think you know becomes someone you never expected, there is fear and suspicion and a propensity to shut yourself off in your own safe space. I mean, if I was gay, does that mean they could be, too? Or their spouses? Or their kids? Their grandkids?
I’ve learned so much since I met my first transgender person. I’ve opened my heart and my mind. I’ve studied, I’ve asked questions, I’ve read books, I’ve listened to biologists and sociologists explain sex and gender. And I’ve met more transgender people along this journey of mine. Parents with trans kids, my kids’ friends, men and women finally understanding why they’ve felt uncomfortable in their own skin for so long. Brave people who have stood up and said, “This is who I am.”
And I’ve watched them be vilified over and over again. Labeled as groomers and pedophiles and the worst, most hurtful names one can imagine. Simply because of who they are.
Here are some sobering statistics from The Trevor Project:
- LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers (Johns et al., 2019, Johns et al., 2020).
- 36% of LGBTQ youth reported they have been physically threatened or harmed, and those who did attempted suicide at nearly triple the rate of those who did not.
- Having at least one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt among LGBTQ youth by 40 percent.
We are failing our LGBTQ community. Across the country, lawmakers have unleashed a barrage of anti-transgender bills, primarily aimed at trans youth. The risk of violence against transgender men and women is disproportionately high, especially with those of color.
And don’t even get me started on the Bud Light brouhaha.
What in the world makes us think it’s okay to hate and criminalize and endanger people simply because of who they are and how they express themselves? Why can’t we just let people be?
I’ve faced more fear and discrimination in the seven years I’ve been out of the closet than I ever did when I lived in the bubble of heteronormative privilege. I used to be afraid of dark parking garages, elevator rides with strangers, running by myself at night—the kinds of things most women fear. But now I must add gay hate to the list as well. When I wear something with a rainbow on it or see someone eyeing the equality sticker on my car, I’m on high alert. Especially in Florida. And I still present as femme. Imagine how much more careful I’d have to be if I presented more masculinely.
It shouldn’t be this way.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
If you feel offended or threatened by the LGBTQ community, I ask you to take a long, hard look inside. What is it that makes you so uncomfortable? What is it that scares you? What is it that makes you feel we are less human? Less deserving?
And please don’t say religion. Because:
- Not everyone subscribes to your personal religious ideology.
- Having studied religion and the Bible, I’ll go head-to-head with you on Biblical interpretation any day.
- What kind of god creates humans that other humans abhor and condemn?
I’m ashamed of who I was in 1994. I want to be better. I am always striving to be better. I hope I have become better, smarter, more open-minded, less judgmental.
If we all had shared goals of expanding our minds and hearts, wouldn’t this world be a more beautiful place? A safer place? A kinder place?
That’s the world I want to live in.